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Indian Football History

Football in India

Football is one of India’s most popular sports, and is said to rank second only behind cricket in popularity, although some reporting considers domestic football to be more popular than domestic cricket. Football is played in almost all schools in India. Football is also said to be the top sport in the states of Goa, Kerala, Manipur and West Bengal.

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in the state of West Bengal, is considered to be the home of Indian football. The city contains the two most famous Indian teams East Bengal Club and Mohun Bagan AC. Derbies between these two clubs often draw crowds around the 120,000 mark.

Structure of the game

The game in India is administered by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) based in Dwarka near Delhi, which is affiliated to the regional Asian Football Confederation, as well as to the worldwide body FIFA. The Indian national team has entered into the regional Asian Cup competition as well as the World Cup. The Indian women’s national team has also played in various competitions. Youth football is administered by the governmental Sports Authority of India. The game is also administered at state levels by state football associations, some of which predate the AIFF. The Indian Football Association, which is responsible for the game in the state of West Bengal, used to be in de-facto charge of the game in India before they pushed for the creation of a national body in association with other state associations. Women’s football has its own separate inter-state and state competitions.

The standard of Indian football (compared globally) is poor – the national team is ranked past 100th place in the world, and is said to struggle to qualify for both the World Cup and the Asian Cup. Part of this has been put down to the lack of opportunities for proper training and development of players in the country.


Football in India was spread during the days of the British Empire. Many football clubs in India were created during this time, and pre-date many of the organisations and clubs, such as FIFA, which are predominant in the game today. Initially games were played between army teams, however clubs were soon set up around the country. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club was set up in what is now West Bengal and is considered the oldest football club in Asia. The club became famous in 1911 when it became the first Indian team to lift the IFA Shield, a tournament previously won only by British teams based in India. It defeated the Eastern Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final of the tournament in a victory that is still regarded by many as the greatest by an Indian team before Independence.

The national football team was also quite successful until the 1970s, qualifying for Olympic tournaments and the FIFA World Cup. The team qualified for the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil, but could not appear as they still played in their bare feet at that time.

The Indian team also won the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games gold medals in football. In 1956 the team finished fourth at the Melbourne Olympics. (Picture above)

The History Of Indian Football by Srinivasan Gopal

Football has never been a really popular sport throughout India. For most part of the century, the Indian sports scene had been dominated by hockey. India was blessed with great players like Dhyan Chand, Roop Singh, who helped India cruise to six consecutive gold medals in the Olympics.

In the later part of the century, cricket was been popular. The popularity of cricket in India is analogous to the popularity of football in Brazil. Football is still popular in West Bengal, Goa and Kerala. Even today, players from these regions form the backbone of the Indian National side. These regions have produced the most famous Indian football players like P. K. Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Bruno Coutinho, I. M. Vijayan.

Early years:

Early tournaments and the clubs. As they had done all around the world, the British introduced football in India in the 19th century. In the early days, football was prevalent amongst officers and men of trading farms, European professors of educational institution and naval officers of port cities.

Football was established as Dalhousie Football Club was formed in 1878. This is contrary to the popular belief that Mohun Bagan is the oldest club in Asia. Most of the early teams formed were British army and military teams.

In 1888, India’s foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand started the Durand Cup in Shimla. This is the oldest tournament in India and has been recognized as the third oldest tournament in the world after the English and Scottish FA Cups.

The Indian Football Association (IFA) was formed in 1893 in Bengal. It is the body that organized and administered football in Bengal and later on West Bengal.

Major tournaments established by the IFA in the following years were the prestigious IFA Shield in 1893 and the Calcutta Football League in 1898. The Calcutta League is the oldest league tournament in Asia and one of the oldest leagues in the world.In 1889, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club was formed. Arguably India’s most popular club, they became the first team to challenge the dominance of erstwhile British clubs by winning the IFA Shield in 1911.

In 1892, another popular club Mohammedan Sporting Club was formed. Mohammedan Sporting occupies a special place in Indian football. They were first Indian team to win the Durand Cup in 1936, a competition that had been dominated by the British for more than 40 years.

1920 was another landmark year. This was the year India’s most successful club, East Bengal Club were formed. Along with Mohun Bagan, they still continue to dominate the Indian football scene. Few clubs have threatened their dominance

After the landmark Mohun Bagan victory, the number of clubs and tournaments spread, leading to the formation of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in Shimla in 1937. The AIFF gained FIFA membership in 1948 and was one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954.

Another important tournament established during this period was the Santosh Trophy. The championship, contested between the States and government institutions in India, was started in 1941. The trophy was named after the late Maharaja Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhary of Santosh, which is now in present Bangladesh. This tournament, as has been the norm, dominated by Bengal, winners 29 times. The Santosh trophy was the premier national championship till the establishment of the National Football League in 1996.

The Indian National Team:

The golden years 1948-70 Football in India, during the early days, was played barefoot. Mohun Bagan’s winning side in the IFA Shield played barefoot. In fact, the exploits of the first Indian to play in Europe, Mohammad Abdul Salim were so famous that the fans of Glasgow Celtic immortalized him in a poem “The Indian Juggler”.

The Indian team embarked upon its first overseas tour in 1948. The occasion was the 1948 London Olympics. The Indian team thrilled all spectators in their only game against France. Led by legendary captain Sailendra Nath Manna, the team lost a heartbreaker to France 1-2, with the winner coming as late as the 89th minute.

The strong squad was rewarded with an invitation to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as Asia’s representative. But, FIFA had a strict boots only rule. Many players in the squad refused to comply with this rule. Also, the long sea journey and lack of foreign exchange made India withdraw from the tournament. India have not come close to qualifying to the World Cup since.

The Indian team won the inaugural Asian Games football gold. Led by Manna, defeated Iran 1-0 in the final at New Delhi. This was India’s first international trophy. The Helsinki Olympics, that followed, was a disappointment. India lost their only match to Yugoslavia comprehensively 1-10. Playing barefoot in a cold Helsinki did not help playing an strong opponent.

For his exploits in leading India from 1948 to 1953, Manna was named among the 10 best captains in the world by the English FA.

1956 was the year of India’s greatest achievement; the fourth place finish in the Melbourne Olympics. With striker Neville D’Souza and youngster P. K. Banerjee, India produced their best ever performance.

Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick to send the hosts Australia crashing out in a 4-2 quarter-final victory. In the semi-final, D’Souza gave India an early second half lead before Yugoslavia came back to win 4-1. In the bronze medal playoff India lost to Bulgaria 0-3. India were the Asian side to reach the semi-finals of the Olympics and Neville D’Souza remains the only Asian to score a hat-trick in the Olympics so far.

With goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj, strikers Chuni Goswami, P. K. Banerjee and a defence marshaled by Jarnail Singh, India won their second Asian games gold in Jakarta in 1962. A runners-up medal in the 1964 Asian Cup followed.

The golden period in Indian football would end in 1970 with a bronze medal in the Asian games.

The barren run that followed extended late into the 1990s, when veteran players like I. M. Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri with youngsters like Baichung Bhutia would herald a new dawn in Indian football.

Football in modern India

After the bronze medal performance in the 1970 Asiad, India went through a period of decline for more than two decades. The rise in popularity of cricket and poor administration contributed to this decline.

The domestic scene underwent a revamp in 1996 with the establishment of the National Football League, a nationwide league. JCT Mills-Phagwara, spearheaded by Bhaichung Bhutia, were the first national champions. The big two, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, have dominated the league so far, winning six titles between them.

India has seen a good crop of footballers in this period. Strikers like I. M. Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia, midfielders like Jo Paul Ancheri and Bruno Coutinho established themselves as first team members. Bhutia has become a star in his own right in a country that idolizes its cricketers.

East Bengal created history in 2003 by becoming the first Indian club side to win an Asian level football tournament – the LG ASEAN Club Championship. Led by Bhutia, they defeated BEC Tero Sasana 3-1 in Jakarta. The victory was impressive because BEC Tero were runners-up in the inaugural Asian Champions League the same year. Bhutia finished with an impressive nine goals to be the top-scorer in the tournament.

On the national front, India won the LG Cup in Vietnam in 2002. This was India’s first major international trophy since the 1970 Asiad bronze. Led by Bhutia, India upset Vietnam 3-2 after trailing 0-2 after 20 minutes.

After another good showing in the Asian games in 2002, India went through another quiet period before victory in the Nehru Cup in 2007. India defeated Syria in the final after losing to them in the group stages. Once again Bhutia was the star player in the tournament.

In 2007, the National Football League was revamped and the new I-League was formed. Zee Sports has signed a 10 year contract with the AIFF to telecast league matches.

With youngsters like Sunil Chetri and the veteran presence of Bhutia, the future of Indian football looks bright.